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Native Americans suffer from ‘historical trauma,’ researcher says

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Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart describes the negative impact of historical trauma on Native Americans today.
July 27, 2005

By Edna Steinman*

REDLANDS, Calif. (UMNS) — The treatment given to American Indians as the United States pushed its boundaries westward has resulted in an ongoing emotional condition that a Native American social worker-researcher calls “historical trauma.”

Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, research associate professor in the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver, described her work at the 2005 Native American Family Camp, held July 19-23 at the University of Redlands. The annual event is sponsored by the United Methodist Church’s Native American International Caucus.

Historical trauma has a layering effect and is the “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the life span and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma,” she said.

Historical or intergenerational trauma is similar to that suffered by the Jewish people as a result of the Holocaust, the Japanese Americans interned in California at the beginning of World War II and African Americans suffering the aftermath of slavery, she said.

Native American history meets the 1948 Geneva Convention’s definition of genocide, Brave Heart said, defining genocide as the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. She said research has shown the U.S. government never intended the long-term survival of Native Americans.

During the Civil War period, Congress passed a resolution stopping negotiation of treaties with Indian tribes and decided to establish two reservations, one east and one west of the Mississippi River. Involvement in the Civil War kept Congress from implementing this plan.

Brave Heart cited the government-run Indian boarding schools as a major factor in the historical trauma. Congressional documents outlined the boarding school policy of forced separation of Indian children from the tribal communities. Gender roles and family relationships were impaired at the boarding schools, where the focus was on the European tradition of male-female relationships and not the Indian tradition of holding women and children sacred. The boarding schools compounded the trauma with a loss of parenting skills, a loss of the child’s identification with the parents and other complex processes, she said.

Children of boarding school survivors passed the trauma on to their descendants, but not on purpose and not consciously, said the professor.

Type II diabetes was common among Native American people, fostered both by the overcrowded, deficient conditions in boarding schools and by trauma-caused stress hormones that wear out the body.

Historical trauma generates such responses as survivor guilt, depression, low self-esteem, psychic numbing, anger, victim identity, death identity, thoughts of suicide, preoccupation with trauma, and physical symptoms, Brave Heart said.

The positive outcomes needed to overcome this intergenerational trauma are a reduction in shame, a better feeling of self-worth, an increase in joy and health, a stronger sense of parental competence, greater use of traditional language, an improved relationship with children and the extended family, and increased communication, she said.

Brave Heart founded the Takini Network in 1992 as an avenue to help overcome historical trauma. It has sponsored workshops to help Native Americans.

Her recent work includes numerous book chapters and journal articles focused on historical trauma and parenting curricula. Her research was primarily with the Lakota reservation population in South Dakota. In 2001, she initiated an international conference for massively traumatized peoples, bringing together Native Americans, Jewish Holocaust survivors and descendants, Japanese internment camp survivors and others.

The annual Native American Family Camp, a five-day conference, brought together adults and youth from across the United States. Funding for some of the programs came from the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries and the Youth Service Fund, administered by the Division on Ministries with Young People at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.

*Steinman is a freelance writer and former annual conference newspaper editor in Redlands, Calif.

News media contact: Linda Green or Tim Tanton, (615) 742-5470 or

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